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The Impulse to Generalism

I spoke recently at the London Expertise Group, a group of philosophers, psychologists and educationalists, about generalism in undergraduate education. I argued that we need to reclaim some ground for this type of education – its intrinsic and instrumental value. As I’ve argued before, I see generalism as the kind of Big Daddy of interdisciplinarity. But whilst interdisciplinarity is in vogue, generalism is still derided by the use of such phrases a ‘jack of all trades’, ‘general education’ etc. I think we need arguments that offer a corrective, and a new language in which to speak of the value of a more generalist approach.

Take a look at the slide below.

On the left is the standard idea of schooling and education in the UK: Three  A-levels, a specialist undergraduate degree. Then either leaving to get a job outside of university or finding an area of specialism to do a PhD and become a researcher in an academic field.

On the right there is a different model: Students enter with at least 3 A levels (in a range of academic subjects), or the IB which requires this breadth at school level. They then try to maintain this breadth at university, even to increase the breadth of their knowledge and interests so that they graduate with a mindset which involves continually broadening one’s knowledge, increasing one’s range and taking on new and wider challenges.

Looked at in this way, it seems as though the more divergent approach, this impulse to generalism, as I would like to call it, runs contrary to the notion of academic expertise. Can we say, then, that generalism is ‘unacademic’, even ‘unintellectual’? But surely this seems wrong, even directly contrary to what we might want to say about a high level, academic education – or, indeed, about what an ‘intellectual’ might be? Isn‘t the impulse to understand more, across as wide a range as one is capable, at least part of the make-up of what we believe a truly educated person, a true intellectual, to be? Of course this does not replace the disciplinary expert, that is not the point, but doesn’t such an approach to knowledge stand alongside the disciplinary expert on equal terms?

A look back at historic greats shows that the view that the best education is always a specialist one is relatively recent. Thus Locke on what he calls the benefits of ‘universality’ in education: This gives not ‘a variety and stock of knowledge but a variety and freedom of thinking…as an increase of powers and activity of the mind.’ Or Humboldt arguing for ‘universal education’ (allgemeine Menshenbildung): ‘He who can say I have made into a part of my humanity as much of the world as I could has reached fulfilment…really lived’.

These two quotes are interesting because although historic, they play directly into contemporary arguments about instrumental and intrinsic value in education. In turn, each quote offers one view as to why we should support a more generalist education as part of HE provision.

Locke and The Knowledge Economy.

I feel a little guilty here about appropriating the work of the venerable Mr Locke  – and this blog is not the place to debate the relative merits of the phrase ‘The Knowledge Economy’ – but there is no doubt that this term is often used by those who think about white-collar employment in late capitalist societies. As we move further into the KE, the desired attributes of employees are given by such things as ‘being able to learn to learn’, ‘learning agility’, ‘learning flexibility’ ,’ability to grasp new concepts’. All such attributes are only tenuously connected with standard undergraduate disciplinary knowledge and are more likely to emerge from Locke’s ‘increase of powers and activity of the mind’ which a ‘universal’ education can give.

Humboldt and Fulfilment.

If I were investing upwards of £9,000 p.a. in my education, I would want to enjoy it, to feel that it enriched me in some way, both whilst I was at university and after. Here is an earlier blog on this. This is a general argument about the intrinsic value of education, but in this case we are also saying that for some students the most intrinsic value will lie in keeping a broad intellectual vision of their studies, not in becoming disciplinary experts, as defined by university departments. In keeping this breadth, we have a better chance of making ‘into a part of [our] humanity as much of the world as [we can]’ a chance to  reach ‘fulfilment’, really live.


So how can the undergraduate, setting out on an interdisciplinary or liberal arts programme, meet the usual comments of ‘What will you specialise in?’, ‘Won’t you just be a jack of all trades?’, ‘What are you going to do with such a qualification?’ ‘Aren’t you just a generalist?’. How about these as possible answers for starters:

‘I’m not exactly sure yet, but I think I would like to head up an international charity one day. I think learning as much as I can at university about economics, politics, culture – and a foreign language – will stand me in good stead for this in the long run.’ Or…

‘I’m thinking I might work somewhere in media. This is such a fast-moving area that you need kind of ‘meta skills’ to keep original and to keep up. I think that by constantly balancing my studies between humanities and sciences it will give me an overview of the way knowledge is generated and used that will help me when the time comes to get a job’ Or…

‘You know, there are many PhD graduates that cannot find work in their area of specialism, and this may only get worse as employment becomes harder to find and the number of PhD candidates increases. Having a broad range of high-level knowledge and skills is likely to be at least as valuable in getting a job as any specialism’ Or…

‘I’m just interested in stuff. Lots and lots of stuff. I know I can’t do everything, but I want to learn as much as I can about the disciplines which interest me while I am at university.’ Or…(the interdisciplinary answer)

‘Actually, I already have an idea that I would like to combine Ecology, Anthropology and Politics to become an academic expert in the new field of Ecological Politics’ Or…

‘Generalists may be the new Kings and Queens of late capitalist knowledge economies. You heard it here first ;-).’

Anyone like to add some more answers below?

Main photo under CC license from Jim Leach’s photo stream.


Locke,  J. L. 2007, Some Thoughts Concerning Education, Dover

Humboldt, A. V, quoted in:

Goldman, H. 1992, Politics, Death and the Devil: Self and Power in Max Weber and Thomas Mann, Univ of California

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